This weekend, we're bringing you a timely gem from the Ozy Archives. Take a deep dive into a longform piece that our writers have hand-picked for you based on this week's news.
Nov 28, 2021
It’s a classic. “I got a hot rod Ford and a two dollar bill,” Hank Williams sings, offering a breezy feel-good country song on the radio. You can almost feel the wind in your hair — windows down, beats a-blasting. While it might seem like a quintessentially American experience, it’s actually one shared around the world — from quiet morning kitchens in India to bustling evening saloons in Japan. This Best of Ozy gives you a soundtrack to wrap up the weekend right while adding some artists and international spice to your playlist. So climb into your pickup and join us for a global country music tour.
--Original reporting by Isabelle Lee and Pallabi Munsi
More Than Beer and Trucks
1 - A Vibrant Genre
During the pandemic, concerts were canceled, and music listening dropped by about 550 million streams per week from April to June of 2020, according to Billboard/MRC Data. But while dance, Latin and hip-hop/R&B suffered most, one genre remained strong: country. From mid-March to mid-June, Americans listened to about 11 percent more country music than they did pre-pandemic. Why? Explanations range from the music serving as a type of comfort food to the rise in country fans learning to stream. Whatever the reason, the internet definitely did not kill the country star.
2 - A New Sound
Country music is a-changin’ . . . even if the purists don’t approve. And while genre-flirting singers like Kacey Musgraves, Sam Hunt and Maren Morris have been met with some criticism, there’s no denying the music known for its rural roots is gaining a foothold in cities worldwide. One of the biggest shifts has been coming from hip-hop, as trap beats, 808 kick drums, beatboxing and even Auto-Tune are joining the show. Don’t blame it on obvious culprits like Lil Nas X, who has brought hip-hop, race and sexuality to the country music conversation. Instead look for the common threads: “One thing that country and hip-hop certainly share is telling the stories of poor and working-class people,” Kevin Holt, an ethnomusicology professor at Columbia University, told Insider.
3 - Kentucky Blues
The Bluegrass State has churned out folksy jangles for some time, creating great country crossovers. Kentucky is leading an upsurge of talent with the help of famous acts like Chris Stapleton (“Tennessee Whiskey,” “Starting Over”) and Sturgill Simpson (“I Don’t Mind”), as well as less obvious coal-town crooners such as Tyler Childers and Angaleena Presley. It’s a crossroads state — part Southern, part Midwestern — with one county describing itself as “where the Bluegrass kisses the mountains.”
Around the World
1 - India
As a child growing up in Uttarakhand, Bal Kishore Das Loiwal was immersed in music, and his love of country music was established early thanks to a relative in Nashville who sent the family daily doses of American country tunes. That led to him taking his nicknames, Babu and Kish, and combining them into the stage name “Bobby Cash” before performing his first gig at Rodeo, a Tex-Mex eatery and hub for expats in Delhi, in the ’90s. The managers were so impressed they offered him a regular spot. A member of the audience, an Aussie film producer, reckoned Cash was “fair dinkum” — the real deal — and invited “the Indian Cowboy” to play at the Southern Hemisphere’s hippest country festival in Tamworth, New South Wales. More than two decades later, the unlikely country star, now 60, was included in 2018’s Rockumentary: Evolution of Indian Rock and continues to perform live shows (online these days).
2 - Australia
This duo is named after the Sydney suburb they once called home; in 2017, Tom Jordan and Mitch Thompson put down stakes in the United States. Their 2019 debut single, “Love That,” put them on the map, and Nashville has since embraced them. Their lightbulb moment? Hearing Australian country star Keith Urban for the first time. “We had to work to find it,” says Thompson. But once they did, that led them down “the rabbit hole” to other artists, from Hunter Hayes to Rascal Flatts. Their award-winning collaboration with Mitchell Tenpenny, “Anything She Says,” has surpassed 79 million on-demand streams. And this year, Seaforth added “Breakups” to their repertoire. The pair call it their “most personal song to date,” noting that it was “written from a very real place and was almost like therapy for us both in different ways.”
3 - New Zealand
Born and raised in the Auckland suburb of Papakura, this quirky young New Zealander jumped into the country scene in 2016. Her music is a little bit country, a little bit folk and a little bit blues — you get the idea. In 2016, she made the world sway with “Heart Full of Dirt” — a honky-tonk rock ’n’ roll tune with a killer chorus: “I’d love you so much more if you were dead.”
4 - Kenya
Imagine a club as honky-tonk as any you’d find in Tennessee, only you’re in Nairobi. The man onstage? Africa’s biggest country musician, Elvis Otieno, also known as Sir Elvis. Born in 1977 to parents who were big fans of The King — notably, Elvis Presley died the same year — Sir Elvis told Public Radio International that every time he hits the stage, “it’s always like a shock.” That’s because Kenyans love country music despite the lack of homegrown stars. Nairobi’s Elvis is on a mission to ensure Kenya remains all shook up.
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An Uphill Battle
1 - Women First
Country music’s deep-seated sexism is no secret: The genre has earned that dubious reputation through exposés about the practices of country radio stations. But why? In 2015, a radio host declared that songs by women were the “tomatoes” in the salad of a good radio show. He exposed a long-held belief that while women are the dominant target demographic of radio listeners, they don’t like listening to female voices. A new generation of female country stars isn’t ready to accept that narrative. When a radio host tweeted, applauding the “courage” of another station for playing two ladies back-to-back, female stars like Kelsea Ballerini and Kacey Musgraves spoke up, pointing out that without radio play, female singers will never get a chance at equal footing.
2 - A Race Problem
What does accountability look like in the country music industry? It’s a question many are asking after Morgan Wallen, who cultivated a bad-boy image while reaching more than 3 billion on-demand streams for his music, was filmed using the N-word on a drunken night in Nashville. Wallen has since apologized in an Instagram video, and has avoided the limelight while promising to do better. “I appreciate those who still see something in me and have defended me. But for today, please don’t,” Wallen said. Many stations took his songs off the radio for weeks, but that didn’t stop his second album, Dangerous, from dominating the charts. Black country singer Mickey Guyton slammed Wallen, noting how she’s endured racism in the industry for a decade. “You guys should just read some of the vile comments hurled at me on a daily basis,” Guyton tweeted. She also pushed back against those who claimed that Wallen’s comments didn’t represent “country music.” “It’s a cold hard truth to face but it is the truth,” she noted.
3 - Respect the Blues
The “twang” that country music is famous for actually comes from blues music steeped in West African musical traditions. Enslaved Africans in the Americas developed the banjo, the backbone for that infamous twang. Country music has long been pioneered and shaped by Black artists, even if they don’t always get the attention and recognition they deserve. Black musician Lesley Riddle was one such innovator. He went on song-finding missions across Appalachia in the late 1920s and ’30s, learning tunes that forever shaped the canon of country music.
4 - Name Feuds
Country group Lady Antebellum was one of the first acts to respond to George Floyd’s death, vowing to drop the latter part of their band’s name and instead go by “Lady A.” However, Seattle-based blues singer Anita White has been performing under that name for almost 30 years. Now, the two Lady A’s are suing each other for the right to perform under the name. The band members refused to change their name or pay White, who asked for $10 million in exchange for the name. When the 62-year-old Black artist wouldn’t cave, they sued her. Like Wallen, the controversy hasn’t much affected the group’s popularity.
Quote of the Day
“Keep a good heart. That’s the most important thing in life. It’s not how much money you make or what you can acquire. The art of it is to keep a good heart.”
— Joni Mitchell
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